The pioneering Greek physician Hippocrates, known as “The Father of Western Medicine”, said “Look well to the spine for the cause of disease”.
Hippocrates’ insight is as acute today as it was more than two thousand years ago – given the spine’s essential function, injuries can have catastrophic effects. In this blog, we examine the nature of spinal cord injury and medical negligence.
Nature of Spinal Cord Injury: Occurrence, Causes, Injuries, and Symptoms
A spinal cord injury typically occurs when a traumatic event causes:
Direct damage to spinal cord cells or cuts the nerve pathways which carry messages throughout the spinal cord; and/or
Indirect damage to the bones (vertebra), soft tissues (muscles), and vessels surrounding the spinal cord.
Spinal cord injuries may result from sports accidents, falls, and motor vehicle collisions, from diseases like Arthritis, Polio, and Spina Bifida, or from surgical errors and miscalculations by medical professionals. Spinal cord injuries are commonly caused by:
Contusions – bruising of the spinal cord.
Compression – pressure on the spinal cord.
Lacerations – cutting or tearing of nerve fibres within the spinal cord.
The typical types of spinal cord injuries include, but are not limited to:
Paraplegia (paralysis of the lower body, including legs)
Quadriplegia (paralysis of the arms and legs).
There are many symptoms of spinal cord injury, such as:
Loss of function (mobility, reflexes, sensation, bladder/bowel control);
Sensitivity to stimuli (light, sound, temperature, scent); and
Medical negligence arises when a doctor breaches the required standard of care. The test for standard of care is reasonableness and a doctor typically fails to act in a reasonable manner if he or she fails to:
Obtain informed consent from a patient;
Properly diagnose a patient’s condition; and/or
Provide appropriate treatment to a patient.
The standard of care is determined by the circumstances, symptoms, and condition of a particular patient together with the doctor’s specialized skills and knowledge. The critical issue is whether the doctor in question exercised the same degree of care and skill which could reasonably be expected of a normal, prudent medical professional of the same experience and standing in similar circumstances.
Medical negligence which can lead to spinal cord injuries includes the following:
Performing a procedure on the spine, such as an epidural or spinal block, or surgery on the spine in a manner which falls below the standard of care.
Failing to provide a patient with sufficient oxygen during a surgical procedure.
Misdiagnosing a medical condition which then results in spinal cord damage.
Failing to treat post-surgical complications efficiently and effectively.
Causing an interruption of blood supply to the heart.
Once a breach of the standard of care is established, the question then becomes whether the breach caused the patient to suffer injury. This question of causation is one which is ultimately determined by a court. However, even if a patient cannot prove that a doctor specifically caused their injury, the doctor does not necessarily avoid liability. Ironically, causation is not determined with surgical precision but is established where a patient can prove, on a balance of probabilities, that the doctor caused or contributed to their injury.